December 19, 2007

No devils in these pitches

Graeme Smith and others have blamed South Africa's tracks for the poor scores this season. They don't quite have a leg to stand on



Same old same old: it is a small bunch of batsmen, Kallis and Amla among them, who have done consistently well for South Africa© 319260

Batsmen and bowlers lose form and, occasionally teams underperform as an unit, with individuals being dragged down to the level of their out-of-touch team-mates. But rarely do whole countries lose form, a phenomenon which appears to have affected South Africa's batsmen. When the top 20 averages were published after last week's sixth round of the SuperSport Series, the last six places were occupied by men averaging in the 30s. At the other end of the table, only three averaged more than 50.

Graeme Smith made headlines for all the wrong reasons after his team had thrashed New Zealand by 358 runs in the first of two Tests at the Wanderers last month, by launching a no-holds-barred whine about the general state of the country's pitches. It was just after Jacques Kallis (186) and Hashim Amla (176 not out) had added 330 together to set up the win.

Domestically there have been some worryingly low scores this season, and on the face of it, without scratching below the surface provided by the scorecards, it would seem that Smith might have a point. But those with a penchant for the truth tell a different story.

"It wasn't a great pitch but it certainly wasn't an 80-all out pitch," moaned Cobras coach Shukri Conrad after his team had been skittled for 82 by the Dolphins at the Pietermaritzburg Oval. "How the hell does a first-class team get bowled out for 80?" he asked, rhetorically. "The senior players are not pulling their weight, and all the batsmen are just not showing the necessary application."

Other coaches are, understandably, far less forthright about the performances of the men under their tutelage and guidance. Like Smith, their attention is turned towards the surfaces they are playing upon. But the phrase about bad workmen blaming their tools comes to mind.

"The criticism is a bit unfounded. In terms of preparations, everything is pretty much as it always has been. Groundsmen take their duties seriously," said Chris Scott of the Wanderers, South Africa's groundsman of the year for the last two years. "The whole thing started with the Test series against New Zealand, and they [New Zealand] didn't have a good side, which would have nothing to do with preparations.

"If you look at the Centurion and the Johannesburg Test matches, they were almost identical. You had the same bowlers taking the wickets and the same batsmen scoring runs, and both matches finished in three and four days," Scott said.

The same batsmen are, indeed, scoring all the runs - in both international and domestic cricket. While Kallis and Amla dominated the Tests against New Zealand, with notable contributions in the one-dayers from Herschelle Gibbs and AB de Villiers, at domestic level the key contributors also number no more than a handful. Which is very bad news for South Africa on two fronts.

The first is the obvious lack of quality and depth at the level below the national team. The second is that two of the top five are about to become unavailable for South Africa and another two, Justin Ontong and Andrew Puttick, have been tested and found wanting at international level.

Boeta Dippenaar (674 runs at 51.84 this season) has signed a two-year contract to play for Leicestershire, which will rule him out of national contention, while Neil McKenzie, like Dippenaar in the best form of his life, has a generous offer from Somerset, which is screaming out for a signature. Yet another three batsmen ranked in the top 15, Jacques Rudolph, Martin van Jaarsveld and HD Ackerman have already committed their futures elsewhere.

Deluding themselves about the quality of pitches in the country might serve a short-term purpose for the country's coaches and their batsmen, but the truth may be exposed in the most dramatic and painful fashion if the established South Africa top-order players lose form or fitness.

Another groundsman who has been around for over two decades, Wilson Ngobese of Kingsmead in Durban, tries hard not get involved in the current debate. He has seen it all before. With a whimsical shrug of the shoulders, he offers the wisest words of anyone on the subject: "A pitch can never change the quality of a batsman or bowler. A bowler still needs to find his line if he comes across a green wicket to get his five wickets; a batsman needs to apply himself to score his hundred. I can't add anything extra."

Quite so.

Neil Manthorp is a South African broadcaster and journalist, and head of the MWP Sport agency

Comments